The phone started jangling early Saturday morning after a story appeared in this column stating that several Washington galleries were on the verge of closing.
"We're doing better than ever," said Phil Desind of Bethesda's Capricorn Gallery. "Why don't you write about that?
"And the Bethesda Art Gallery is doing great, too. They just sold out a whole show to one person!"
Contemporary photography dealer Kathleen Ewing was the next caller. "Business isn't terrific," she allowed, "but it's better than last year, and we're certainly planning to stick around. In fact, we're making plans to open a second gallery in Santa Fe. Why don't you write about galleries that are doing well?"
This is a story about galleries that are doing well. At least a couple of them.
Bethesda Art Gallery
Betty Duffy's tiny Bethesda Art Gallery at 7950 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, is perhaps the best proof that high-quality art, reasonably priced, will sell no matter what the economy. Duffy specializes in small-edition, handmade prints by recently rediscovered Americans from the early decades of this century, and her stock--which she collects and owns--is always in demand both by museums and a growing army of collectors who want top-quality art at modest prices.
The current show of black-and-white wood engravings--many of them Maine seascapes--by American artist Leo Meissner (1895-1977) boasts the usual flurry of red "sold" dots. But even in this bustling place, the sale last month of an entire Rockwell Kent show to one collector was out of the ordinary.
"A collector from the Midwest called the night before the Kent opening to ask what was in it," said Duffy. "When I listed the 40 wood engravings and lithographs, he said he'd take them all. Cash." The prices--which Duffy called "not low, but fair market price," ranged from $350 to $2,000.
Worried about disappointing her regular clientele, Duffy said, "I don't think I can do that.
"But he said, 'Isn't this a business? Don't they go on sale tomorrow at 11?' I told him yes and the next day he called precisely at 11 and bought out the show. My husband convinced me it would do wonderful things for the cash flow," said Duffy, who chose not to identify the buyer.
This isn't Duffy's first sellout, though it is the first to one person. Earlier this year a museum bought half of a Don Freeman show. "But business has been growing every year since we opened in 1975, though the first three years ran in the red," said Duffy. "Last year was an all-time record-breaker, and after December, we decided we'd never top that and we weren't going to try. Yet, incredibly, profits are ahead 15 percent this year.
"I know people are having trouble, and I assume it will hit us sooner or later," said Duffy. "But quality will always stand up and will always sell."
Duffy has something else going for her--as do Jem Hom and Harry Lunn and other dealers who handle artists from the past. "These artists are well established, they're often dead, and there's a limited supply," said Duffy.
Phil Desind of Bethesda's Capricorn Gallery, 4849 Rugy Ave., agreed that it's not easy to sell contemporary art, though his quirky gallery--filled to overflowing with living realists--is currently doing better than ever, with sales ahead of last year--its biggest year ever. "The show on the walls is completely sold out," said the happy dealer, 72, as he swept his arm past the work of Kang L. Chung, a China-born New York artist who makes Richard Estes-like paintings and drawings of entranceways to contemporary buildings in Manhattan. Prices ranged from $800 to $3,600 in this, the artist's first Washington show. It closes today.
Leaning against the wall were the works of two other artists: Alan Kessler--the subject of the next show--who makes strong, large paintings that look like photographic blowups of plants and other still-life subjects; and Robert Bidner, who makes bold paintings of architectural landmarks, including Kann's and Woodward & Lothrop. Desind has never given Bidner a show, but of 24 paintings brought by the artist into the gallery, 13 were sold--literally off the floor--in one week. The prices: $1,000 to $4,800.
Desind's following, though small, is one of the most devoted in town. When he moved to this, his fourth Bethesda location, a dozen fans helped him haul the paintings. While fashions have come and gone, Desind--who owns 1,000 paintings himself--has stuck doggedly to realists. Opening in 1964, when nobody was interested in realism, he tried to sell Barye bronzes, Bellows lithographs and Bierstadt paintings. "Nobody showed up for the Bierstadt opening," he recalled. Desind also had prints by Martin Lewis (at $30) and John Taylor Arms (for even less)--the very artists who are now bringing in big bucks at Bethesda Art Gallery and elsewhere.
"I feel strongly that a dealer should help artists who are alive, and encourage them," said Desind, who has also shown several contemporary painters whose prices have subsequently skyrocketed after exposure in New York. But he sees no end of new talent. "We're going through a golden age of art; they're coming up from all over."
"The problem is finding collectors," he added. "I'm a statistician, so I can make such guesses, but I estimate that one-one-hundredth of the population buys art seriously--$2,000 or more per work --and that means 25,000 people in the whole country. If you take away the numbers who buy in New York, what's left for elsewhere?"